Washington, 11 March 1998 (RFE/RL) -- The United States this month will become the fourth NATO country to approve amendments to the NATO treaty allowing Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic to join the military alliance.
Canada was the first in early February to ratify the protocols of accession, followed by Denmark, and earlier this month Norway.
The U.S. State Department says the next to vote on the protocols will be Iceland's legislature which is set to debate NATO expansion next Wednesday (March 18).
Italy will also begin the ratification debate this month but Rome's senate is not expected to vote until late spring.
Under NATO's founding agreement of April, 1949, the so-called Washington Treaty, legislatures of all 16 NATO members must ratify amendments to the original treaty.
U.S. officials say they anticipate no major problems in any of the ratifying NATO member-states -- not even Turkey.
The Turkish government last year, angry over the European Union's rejection of its application, threatened to block NATO expansion until its candidacy for EU membership was reconsidered. But the Turks raised no major obstacles at a key meeting of NATO ministers in Brussels in December which formally invited the three Central European nations to join the alliance.
Cameron Munter of the State Department's NATO Enlargement Office says all indications at present are that ratification of the NATO protocols will move through the legislative process in NATO member states in time for a planned NATO summit and 50th anniversary commemoration in Washington next year in April.
President Bill Clinton said more than a year ago this should be the occasion at which Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic would become NATO members.
Munter said Turkey may well be the last country to approve expansion because the ratification debate is scheduled late on the legislative calendar in Ankara and is part of a complicated parliamentary process.
He said "it could be 1999 before Turkey approves the protocols but we expect it to happen well before April of that year."
Meanwhile, the German Bundesrat plans to consider ratification in May and the British parliament in July. NATO expansion is also on the summer schedule of legislatures in Belgium, Greece and Portugal.
Parliaments in The Netherlands and Spain are to consider the issue in late October.
France and Luxembourg have not yet announced a date for their ratification debates.
Munter says the three new NATO members will also have to ratify the protocols of accession, even though as candidates they spent six months negotiating their provisions in 1997.
He says under NATO regulations, the candidate members cannot technically accept the protocols until all other NATO countries have ratified them. But the Central European parliaments can begin a ratification debate in advance as the Czech legislature has decided to do.
Munter points out that ratifying the expansion protocols is not a straightforward one-step procedure.
In the United States and many other countries, parliamentary approval is only the first and most visible part given the role of the U.S. Senate on international treaties to advise and consent.
When Clinton signs the ratifying documents, the second part of ratification will be completed. The White House says the signing will not be marked by a special ceremony and is likely to be one of the things Clinton will do during the course of an ordinary working day.
Ratification of the protocols of accession will enter into force when the documents are duly registered with the NATO treaty.
As Munter puts it "the instruments of ratification must be deposited with the Washington Treaty."
NATO was founded in Washington, so the NATO treaty resides in one of the dusty cabinets of the U.S. State Department's Legal Office. That is where the U.S. documents will be taken from the White House, bound with the traditional red tape in a large folder, bearing America's national seal depicting a bald eagle.
A procession of foreign emissaries will come to the Legal Office throughout the year, bringing similar folders, similarly bound and sealed. The folders will be deposited with several other sets of accession protocols, marking previous rounds of NATO expansion.
The military alliance was formed in 1949 by only 12 countries -- Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Iceland, Italy, Luxembourg, The Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, the United Kingdom and the United States.
It increased to its present membership of 16 nations in three separate rounds of expansion. Greece and Turkey joined NATO in 1952, Germany in 1955, and Spain in 1982.